By Bruce Northam
Visiting Slovenia—their 90’s Western Balkans war behind them—revealed a dynamic region less dangerous than a double-edged daffodil … a welcome wind of change.
The Western Balkan’s state personalities were defined long before they were bound together by Tito’s version of Yugoslavia for 50 years. Since 1991, they’ve redefined themselves once again. The intense cultural microclimates huddled into a mountainous, sea-hugging peninsula now celebrate their common bonds while remembering their differences.
Beauty and history lure tourists as most of the people living in these old new countries speak excellent English—a feat less familiar in neighboring across the Adriatic Sea Italy. Many Romance (Roman) language speakers tend to remain, let’s say, unromantic about wholly tackling the English language.
Because of Slav migrations peaking in the 7th century, their individual Slavic language accents all sound Russian, using a mix of the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets—though very few understand the Russian language.
Although a radically polarizing figure, the former dictator Tito relished dogs and John Wayne movies and entertained many popular personalities including Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Sofia Loren, and Orson Wells.
While his brand of Communism influenced Yugoslavia, it never tethered the country to Moscow. Today, despite suffering the economic downturn wounding many parts of the world, the region is once again ready to embrace freedom now that the political storm has finally blown out.
The other former Yugoslavian states have always viewed Slovenians as stubborn, hard-working mountain folks, and indeed, they were an important manufacturing engine for that regime. Separated only by an arm of the Alps from neighboring Austria, mostly Roman Catholic Slovenia shares the Germanic appetite for efficiency, mountain sports, and a more Western European view of the world. Although some detach Slovenia from the Western Balkans, it is indisputably Slavic. It’s amazing what a difference a mountain range makes. Water melting in these snow and ice-encrusted Alps flows from its taps. This is a healthy place.
Sometimes a tentative cab ride is our first introduction to new places. I relished the easy stroll from the Rail Europe station into the heart of its Baroque capital city, the historic geographic crossroads of Germanic, Latin, and Slavic cultures.
(Quick tutorial: Slovenia’s mountain-encircled capital, Ljubljana, is pronounced Youb-Blee-Ahna.) Curving, cobbled medieval streets converted into pedestrian-only walkways are lined with inviting restaurants and shops and open-air nightlife buzzes along the canal bisecting the pleasing, non-intimidating city-town. It reminded me of Newport, Rhode Island, minus the ocean and yacht snobs.
Ljubljana castle looms over the old city while a dragon, the city’s symbol, graces its flag. In medieval times people thought that marsh fog was dragon breath. Today, Jagermeister induces spiced dragon breath.
A short train ride northwest into denser forest, Bled (say ‘blate,’ and you’re fine), a glacial lakeside town with many waterside dining options, celebrates the breeze flowing from its ‘Julian Alps.’ The Alps soar west to east from Monaco, visit eight countries, and terminate in Slovenia.
Bled celebrated Sedona-style energy vortexes long before the first hippie landed in Arizona. Always barefoot, relocated Swiss Naturopath Arnold Rikli pioneered Bled’s vegan and spa movement in the later 19th century. By discovering Bled’s healing center, he attracted aristocrats from around the world to come here and heal. Some see him as the grandfather of spa health resorts.
Climate-friendly Bled’s foremost attraction, medieval Bled Castle, has towered over the lake-centered town for 1,000 years. Also majestic, the nearby mid-lake church of St. Mary is the proverbial island unto itself. Visitors are encouraged to ring the immense church bells while making a wish. Downside: the iconic bells clang all day long. Upside: people truly enjoy wishing for something while tugging on something.
Ninety-nine steps rise from the water’s edge to this idolized church. Local wedding tradition requires grooms to carry new brides up these steps during which the bride must remain silent (for the last time!).
Bled, oddly, was once the sister city of Benbrooke, Texas until the Texans recoiled. One can only wonder why—Bled has way more in common with Lake Placid, NY. However, the leftover 1980 Olympic event relics in Lake Placid, N.Y. can’t compare with Bled’s summertime mountainside toboggan ‘bob’ ride, the Funbob. One of its steep ski slopes is refitted with a serpentine track allowing mini tobogans to bolt down the mountain giving pilots a whiplash-speed adrenaline rush.
Parks & Scenery
Nearby, the perfectly isolated Bohinj (‘bow hin’) area is second to none for all summer and winter sports. Also known as Triglav National Park, Bohinj is the Balkan’s Yosemite, a flattened u-shaped basin and lake encircled by glacier-torn Slovenian Alps. Hemingway served as a medic on this Alps front during WWI.My highlights were treks in the base of two deep gorges, one dry the other supporting a river with waterfalls.
The lesser known, dry Pokljuka Gorge teems with lush flora, enters several tunnels and earns a good sweat. Vintgar Gorge, far more popular, has a river coursing through it and spectacular cliff-hugging boardwalks that make the otherwise inaccessible canyon family friendly.
Bohinj, first populated in the Bronze Age, is an alpine winter sports paradise, not to mention an amazing warm weather hiking and mountain climbing destination. You do get away from it all here—they even speak a singular dialect. Myth suggests that conquering Turks retreated instead of invading Bohinj, because they saw it as the end of the world.
Slovenia became independent in 1991, joined the European Union in 2004, and adopted the Euro in 2007. When I visited in 2010, it seemed like an Old World Alps movie set fantasy…that I could afford. Slovenian architecture, scenery, and humanity won’t disappoint. This proud, tiny, young independent republic is vastly photogenic.
Sites & Attractions:
Rail Europe cruises into Slovenia—in style visit
To get started and explore the capital city, Ljubljana, visit this website.
Check out an antique hotel
Vila Bled, on Bled Lake, is a deluxe, high-ceiling hotel that once served as Tito’s summer residence
Bled’s lakeside Preseren Restaurant is divine and worth visiting
Pokljuka’s Sport Hotel, one hour from Ljubljana, is a hub for year-round Alpine excursions
After connecting through a choice of European hubs, Adria Airways is based in Ljubljana
Bruce Northam is the author of The Directions to Happiness, a 135-country quest for life lessons, and a Chicken Soup for the traveler — with balls. He lives in New York City. Bruce’s show, American Detour, reveals the travel writer’s journey. His alternative keynote presentation, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. His other live performance, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit AmericanDetour.com.